Even as media killings remain unsolved and harassments continue, 13 more Filipino journalists were killed in 2005 and several instances of harassment and intimidation were recorded.
BY JHONG DELA CRUZ
As 2005 drew to a close, Filipino journalists agreed the Macapagal-Arroyo administration failed to protect them with 12 journalists killed and several cases of harassments recorded. Previous media killings also remain unsolved.
“This has been one of the worst years,” said Carlos Conde of the National Union of Journalist of the Philippines (NUJP).
Earlier in the year, the International Federation of Journalist (IFJ) predicted that 2005 will turn out to be worse than 2004 in its report titled “A Dangerous Profession: Press Freedom Under Fire in the Philippines.”
According to the NUJP, 17 journalists were killed during the Aquino administration, 15 under Ramos, five under Estrada and 39 under Arroyo. This situation prompted the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalist (CPJ) to declare the Philippines the “most murderous country for journalists” in 2004 next to war-torn Iraq.
On December 1, DYDD reporter George Benaojan reporter Bantay Balita columnist in Talisay City, Cebu, was shot dead by a still unidentified attacker. Benaojan was the third journalist in the Philippines to be killed in only two weeks.
The latest to be killed was Robert Namoya, cameraman of the television network ABS-CBN. Namoya was shot by motorcycle riding men near the station’s gate in Quezon City Dec. 28.
The killing of Namoya brought to 12 the number of journalist killed in the country this year, 75th since 1986 and the 39th since President Arroyo assumed office in January 2001.
Conde said that what made this year worse than 2004 was the administration’s decision to railroad the passage of the anti-terrorism bill which is seen as a threat to civil liberties including those of journalists. Conde added that Arroyo’s speech telling media “to shed its bad boy image” has sent a chilling effect on journalists.
Not surprisingly, the NUJP has called Arroyo’s term “the worst administration in the history of the country in so far as the killing of journalist is concerned.”
Death threats and censorship
In August 2005, IFJ called on the government to investigate a death threat received by Glenda Gloria, managing editor of a Newsbreak magazine.
“Considering the terrible record of ruthless and deadly attacks against journalists in the Philippines, the Government must recognize the seriousness of death threats against journalists and investigate these incidents,” said the IFJ. “If the Government ignores these threats, it will be sending these criminals a message of impunity. The Government must put an end to the current environment of intimidation and violence, and take action against these criminals.”
Aside from death threats, censorship of media establishments happened in 2005.
Mayor Jose Galario has revoked the license of Radio Mindanao Network’s DXVR in Valencia due to “unfriendly broadcast.” DXMV-Radyo Ukay was also ordered closed by Galario. He also filed multiple libel charges against RMN commentator Zaldy Ocon.
Gagging the press
IFJ noted that the timing of attempts by the Macapagal-Arroyo administration to muzzle the media was evident at the height of controversies plaguing the presidency, particularly calls for her ouster and accusations of corruption.
Filipino journalists were said to have been excluded at times from government press briefings. There were also cases when their questions were screened before the briefings. Members of the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP) in one Malacañang press conference were denied entry and the slots were limited to 10 chosen reporters who first filled out cue cards with their questions.
“The Filipino government is excluding journalists and news organizations that they deem critical of the Arroyo administration. They are attempting to avoid answering the hard questions and we have to ask why?” IFJ said. “This is a blatant manipulation of the media and it must stop.”
Pushing the envelope
The Arroyo administration is likely to push the envelope early next year by passing into law the anti-terrorism bill, said Conde.
“This could be the darkest day for Philippine media,” he said forecasting that a worst-case scenario is in store for working journalists should the bill be enacted in its present form.
“Arroyo is feeling vindicated because of economic improvements…she might use this to legitimize all her actions and policies including passing the bill,” he said.
Concerned media groups including the NUJP deemed the bill a “threat” to civil liberties. Earlier, NUJP was perceived by the government as an “enemy of the state” in an official document prepared by the military. The government also confirmed some media practitioners are under military surveillance.
In October, the House and Senate Committees on Justice approved their respective consolidated versions of the bill.
Critics dismissed the bill as vague and open to abuse. It also violates the constitutional rights to privacy, free speech, freedom of assembly and association, allows illegal exercise of police power. It was considered unnecessary as problems supposedly addressed are already covered by existing laws.
Lawyer Neri Colmenares said the bill’s definition of terrorism is vague, describing it as “a premeditated, actual use of violence or force against persons, or force or by any other means of destruction perpetrated against properties, environment, with the intention of creating or sowing a state of danger, panic, fear or chaos to the general public, group of persons or a segment thereof, or of coercing or intimidating the government to do or abstain from doing an act.”
The journalists’ coverage of activities by perceived enemies of the state could result in a lifetime imprisonment and a P10-million ($183,183.73, based on an exchange rate of P54.59 per US dollar) fine as vague concepts of “facilitating, contributing to and promoting” terrorism are included in sections 6 and 7 of the proposed House bill.
Maintaining links with suspected terrorists and reporting about false terrorist acts are similarly sanctioned in the bill.
“The bill will give birth to a kind of media that serve as mouthpiece of the state,” Colmenares said. “Those who fail to disclose acts of terrorism shall suffer a penalty of six years imprisonment, a provision that shall disrupt work routines of media practitioners as they are required to report first, not to their editors, but to the police.”
NUJP labeled the bill a “disregard to a very basic democratic principle…that any person is innocent until proven guilty. In effect, the anti-terrorism bill would allow a small group of people to short-circuit democratic legal processes and cast as wide a net as possible to justify full-scale attacks on civil liberties.”
NUJP denounced insinuations that media coverage of the roots and consequences of injustice backs terrorism and that the media cannot be blamed for conflicts that have their roots in injustice in the country.
It reiterated that a free press has its role in resolving long-standing conflicts and that the measure would only curtail civil liberties as “in the provisions of anti-terrorism bill lie the death of democracy,” it said.
Arming journalists as the answer?
Some media practitioners have given up on the government’s handling of journalists’ killings and opted to arm themselves for much-needed security.
NUJP reiterated that the move would not solve the problem, and would instead aggravate it as it would directly invite their perpetrators to legitimize their intent.
“Many of those who were killed were in fact armed,” it said adding: “Encouraging journalists to arm themselves is a virtual admission by law-enforcement authorities of how inutile they are against those who seek to silence the press in this country.”
“The killings of journalists are a symptom of a deeper problem of governance rooted in the failure of the justice system to truly protect the very citizens whose rights and lives it is supposed to defend,” it said.
The IFJ likewise denounced the move. “The gun culture – turning journalists into combatants – is contributing to the escalating violence directed towards journalists.”
A widespread culture of violence being tolerated and even condoned by Philippine government officials may have compounded the issues of struggling journalists in the country, according to IFJ and NUJP.
A mission led by the groups early this year found instances when senior government officials, including mayors in two major cities in the south of the country, openly supported the use of death squads in dealing with unruly elements in their towns, said Australian representative Gerard Noonan.
“When such a culture is allowed to flourish at an official level, it is little wonder that aggrieved local strongmen or political figures turn to assassins to get even with the media,” Noonan said. “The IFJ treats this matter as one of utmost seriousness. It is completely unacceptable in a country with democratic credentials like the Philippines.”
NUJP saw that poor working conditions made journalists more vulnerable to such attacks. “The vast numbers of journalists are receiving a pittance or nothing at all for their work. They are being exploited and sometimes forced into conflict-of-interest situations,” NUJP said. “They do not receive safety support from their employees either,” she added.
“These killings are not just a terrible pain to bear for media in the Philippines,” said IFJ President Christopher Warren. “They are part of a pattern of continuing violence against journalists around the world.”
For his part, Conde said his group would continue pressing the government to junk a planned anti-terrorism bill. He stressed that the NUJP, along with other media alliances, would opt to call for Arroyo’s ouster.
“Even a freedom fund worth P2 million ($36,636.75) reportedly handed by the government would not keep our fears at bay…much more the families of those who were felled by bullets of state instruments,” he said. Bulatlat.com